Roger Highfield: Talented teachers are the key to improving our science education

Thursday 26 November 2009 01:00

In recent years there has been one concern after another expressed about the quality of science education and the supply of young scientists. There are the worries, crudely expressed in headlines about dumbing down, that the introduction of citizen science for the majority of students at GCSE is at the expense of more academic content based science education. There are fears that league tables crank up the pressure on schools to adopt easier courses.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is fretting about the disappearance of problem-solving, critical thinking and mathematical manipulation from school science examinations. Professor John Holman of the National Science Learning Centre has warned that science teaching needs more attention if the UK economy isn't to slip behind countries such as Japan and Taiwan, claiming that Britain's economic recovery and the future of UK plc depends on it.

So what of the future? We're facing an election and a serious problem when discussing this issue. The extent of it became clear during the last two elections, when, with the help of the pressure group Save British Science, and now the campaign for science and industry, I counted how many times the word "science" appeared in the parties' manifestos. This simple exercise was surprisingly revealing: in the case of the Tories, the 'S' word didn't get a single mention.

There might not be the prospect of another chemist following Margaret Thatcher into No 10, but I dearly hope that all the parties could at least show that they get the importance of science and engineering by selecting a few candidates who know something about it, and persuading their party leaders to give some pre-election speeches with sufficient fibre to engage the three million scientists, engineers and technologists among the electorate.

We need still more recognition that Government funding and initiatives can make a huge difference to the landscape of science and science education. For me, it is not the curriculum that matters. It is something much more simple than that: ensuring that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are taught with enthusiasm and passion.

Roger Highfield is Editor of New Scientist. This is an extract from a speech he gave at an event hosted by the network of Science Learning Centres in London yesterday

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